A lot has changed since we last previewed a Tennessee game, and a lot more could change with a win on Saturday.
We've mentioned a couple of times this week that Butch Jones is The One Big Win away from the full buy-in from the fanbase. He's done everything else we could reasonably ask and almost did more than any of us imagined against Georgia. So many of Tennessee's previous chances against ranked teams came with the Vols as double-digit underdogs with little realistic chance at victory. But here's Tennessee, playing just the third home game as an underdog to a ranked team by single digits during what will be a twenty game losing streak to ranked foes if the Vols don't get it done. For the first time since the Florida game last year, victory seems very possible.
It's a dangerous thing, hope. Tennessee fans are so hungry for victory we can find ourselves being talked into it with relative ease, even against a Top 15 team that looked incredibly good on the road last week. The Vols were great against Georgia, but the Dawgs were banged up and much less of a threat defensively than the one we'll face tomorrow. Justin Worley was good in the second half against Georgia, but was that an exception or a move toward a new rule? Butch Jones pushed all the right buttons two weeks ago, but can he and the Vol coaching staff out-maneuver our greatest nemesis?
The ball could bounce some funny ways, but the outcome of this game should hinge on who wins each of these three battles:
Connor Shaw vs Tennessee Secondary
As you've probably heard by now, South Carolina's quarterback has not thrown an interception all year. And Shaw isn't just safe, he's good: 9.2 yards per attempt ranks 12th nationally. Aaron Murray had only thrown one pick all year coming into the UT game and left with only one questionable throw, so there are no guarantees here, but the Vols are still 6th nationally with 11 picks on the year. This isn't like previous weeks where we've thought the Vols had to win the turnover battle huge to have a chance. But if Shaw continues to have a nice easy life, he can pick Tennessee apart. On the road in Knoxville, who will be more opportunistic?
Rajion Neal vs South Carolina Defense
Rested and ready after 33 touches against Georgia, can our senior tailback repeat the feat against a much better defense? Sure, the Vols will still need a solid game from Justin Worley to win, but his ceiling will be much lower than Rajion's in this game. Neal didn't play against the Gamecocks last year, but the Vols will need a huge game from him Saturday.
It's a topic for a different day, but Rajion has a few Saturdays left in his Tennessee career and a few chances to upgrade his legacy. Few Vols from the Dooley Era will be remembered fondly, but if you're the guy who has a big game to help this thing get turned around? Neal is one of four backs to average more than 100 yards per game in the SEC. South Carolina is fifth best in the SEC against the run. You want to help Worley have a safe game, Neal needs a great game. Can the Vol rushing attack deliver?
Tiny Richardson vs Jadeveon Clowney
Yeah, yeah, you're tired of this one already. Me too. But here's something more important than a television talking point or the NFL scouts' notes: if the Vols can once again handle #7 without having to use a double-team, the Vols can throw some things at the Carolina front they may not have seen all year. Tennessee, unlike some (all?) of the teams the Gamecocks have faced this year, doesn't have to run away from Clowney or reshape their entire protection scheme around him. If Tennessee is going to get that signature win, it needs a signature performance from its greatest strength. Never will more eyes be on the Vol o-line than Saturday. Make a name for yourselves.
Can the Vols dictate pace in the run game, stay protected, and get the best of Connor Shaw?
Is this the one?